Sunday, November 28, 2021

The First and Last Mountain

When I look back on it, climbing up Mount Kynthos wasn't so hard. It was twelve years ago. Mount Kynthos is the highest point on the Greek island of Delos, and from the top, next to an ancient pagan altar, you can look all around and see the Cyclades islands circling 'round. Come to think of it, mounting Mount Lykabettos wasn't so hard either. Athens is already pretty elevated, so it's still just a nice hill. Now, Diamond Hill – that's in Connemara National Park in Ireland, and that was a more formidable mountain my mother and I tackled together eleven years ago. It took a few hours to make our way to the top. The view was utterly spectacular – the beauty all around was immense. Alas, we both managed to injure an ankle on the way down, so we didn't escape the park until well after closing – it wouldn't be a climb I'd be eager to make again. But for me, the most challenging mountain climb I've faced was five years ago: a hike directly from the water line straight up a cliff to Simonopetra, a secluded monastery on Mount Athos, Greece's 'holy mountain.' Simonopetra sits high above sea level, and a narrow path zigzags back and forth across the cliff, relentlessly advancing upward, and certainly it made me wish I'd packed a great deal lighter! I thought for sure a few times that in exhaustion I might slip back over an edge and tumble into the Aegean Sea far below. But after a few hours of determined climbing, I saw the monastery gardens, then the gates, and at last stumbled into the guesthouse of a beautiful community of worshippers of the Lord Jesus Christ. And that was absolutely worth the ascent.

I would submit to you that we can tell the story of the Bible – which is the story of all humanity, whether they know it or not – as a journey to seven mountains. We begin at the First Mountain. And that mountain is in Eden. Maybe you didn't think of a mountain there, but the prophet Ezekiel declares, “You were in Eden, the garden of God... You were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked” (Ezekiel 28:13-14).1 On this holy mountain of God, undying we lived in harmony and love and trust. Until we lost trust and broke faith – which starved love and shattered harmony. Then “unrighteousness was found in you,” says the prophet, and the Lord God “cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God” (Ezekiel 28:15-16). In dark rage, we fill the earth with violence. Then see God start anew, Noah striding down the slopes of Mount Ararat. Yet such was the pride still embedded in our hearts that at Babel we built a false mountain with our own hands, determined to reascend Eden's height and recapture paradise by force of craft and claw. Thus God scattered our foolish futility, apportioning us into many divided nations under the guardianship of his angels.

Then, out of this primeval mess, we enter more tangible history as God chooses one clan, one man, one Abram to carry grace forward. This Abram God will exalt like a high mountain of faith. But it takes a long journey. And that journey bears fruit for Abram, now Abraham, on the day he's summoned to a mountain. Now of ripe years, Abraham is called to bring his beloved son Isaac to the Second Mountain. And that mountain is Mount Moriah. Hiking the mountain's 2,520-foot height, strong Isaac carried a load of wood; his father Abraham carried a torch and a knife. No command hurt Abraham's heart more than the test to give him his dearest earthly love and only future hope – but since Isaac was God's promise of hope, Abraham was certain God would provide a solution (Hebrews 11:17-19). Isaac, for his part, was willing to die for the will of God, and willingly was laid on the altar. At the last moment, an angel brought a message staying Abraham's hand and praising their faith, for God had seen, and had provided a substitute for Isaac, a ram (Genesis 22:1-14).

Isaac the Beloved Son would have his own less-beloved son Jacob, renamed Israel, who would have many sons, who – living in Egypt – would grow into twelve great but oppressed tribes. Liberated by God through the God-blessed hand of Moses, through the desert they'd walk as a vast crowd to the base of the Third Mountain. And of course, if the First Mountain was Eden and the Second Mountain was Moriah, the Third Mountain must be Sinai. We remember how God came down on the top of Mount Sinai, and it burned like Eden's stones of fire, with “a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest” (Hebrews 12:18-19). Beneath its thunder, all quake in fear and trembling. These sons of Abraham stand at its foot, forbidden to even touch the mountain. Only Moses climbs the nearly 7,500 feet to the top; priests and elders can only go partway up into the cloud.

There at this Third Mountain, the tribes are forged into a single royal nation. At this Third Mountain, they are given God's Law as their constitution. And at this Third Mountain, just as a sacrifice celebrated a promise on Mount Moriah, so now here a sacrifice confirms the covenant between God and his people. At the base of the Third Mountain, on an altar surrounded by twelve stone pillars, Moses sacrifices oxen and shouts to Israel, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words” (Exodus 24:4-8). Then, as they dwell beneath the burning mountain, they receive one further gift. They get the Tabernacle – it's God's portable sanctuary, a Sinai for the road, and in it is an ark, a box, that holds the stone tablets of the Law, on which are written God's ten covenant-terms, his ten commandments.

From there, this new nation marched, tabernacle and ark and all, to the land of promise in which Abraham had dwelt. And there, after many obstacles and setbacks through the coming centuries, at last they established a kingdom. The kingdom then was given to a ruler named David, with whom God made a royal covenant and adopted David as a son. David had much work to do to finish subduing the nations under God's nation. Part of that work, then, was to seize a Jebusite city called Jerusalem, and particularly to conquer its stronghold called Zion (2 Samuel 5:6-7). Here, we find our Fourth Mountain. For our Fourth Mountain is Mount Zion.

One day, after King David has governed wrongly, it's atop a nearby mountain that David sees a vision. He sees a destroying angel, standing at the mountaintop threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, and the angel's hand is outstretched to sacrifice Jerusalem like it's Isaac. David rushes to buy the threshing floor, where he repeats Abraham's substitute-sacrifice, using oxen like Moses did; and the angel stays his hand (1 Chronicles 21:15-28). It's like Moriah all over again. In fact, the Bible later tells us that Araunah's threshing floor was Mount Moriah, the same place where Abraham's deepest act of faith happened.

Now, what happens next might surprise you. Years go by, and David leaves the throne to his son Solomon, who carries out his dad's dream of building God a temple. And where does Solomon build it? “Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the LORD had appeared to David his father, at the place that David had appointed, on the threshing floor of [Araunah] the Jebusite” (2 Chronicles 3:1). Yes, the Temple is built on the spot where Abraham's faith was put to the test. And when the Temple was finished, the priests carried the Ark of the Covenant into the Holy of Holies of this new temple (1 Kings 8:1-6), going up the mountain with constant sacrifices (1 Kings 8:5). And what's inside the Ark of the Covenant? “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets of stone that Moses put there” (1 Kings 8:9). Moses brought them down a mountain, and now they've gone back up a mountain. And they've gone into a sanctuary that's designed to look like a garden, with carved trees and plants, fruits and flowers, and even two great cherubim guarding the Ark of the Covenant. Then this Temple is a garden paradise, and so a new Eden; and it's the original place of sacrifice, being itself Moriah; and now it houses the Law, as a new Sinai.

Over time, this Temple Mount – which rolls Eden, Moriah, and Sinai into one – takes on the name of Zion (cf. Psalm 20:2), “for the LORD has chosen Zion: he has desired it for his dwelling place” (Psalm 132:13). “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2). When God dwelled on Sinai, the mountain could be approached but not touched, and so God could not be approached. But now that God dwells on Zion, his temple invites pilgrims to ascend – under conditions. “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD, and who shall stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart...” (Psalm 24:3-4). In this holy place, this Mount Zion, each of Israel's sacrifices will reappropriate Abraham and Isaac's faith,2 now empowered by the Law of Moses and focused through the royal covenant with David and Solomon, surrounded by an artificial Eden as if we're Adam and Eve all over again, every day. That is what the temple provided.

The trouble is, the temple on Mount Zion was created and corrupted, built and broken, not once but twice. This mountain simulated Eden and Moriah and Sinai, and even added something new, but it begged for fulfillment. Then, one day, to the second temple built atop Zion, a mother carried her baby boy, offering two doves as a purification-sacrifice in accordance with the Law – though in truth, they needed no purification. And there in that temple on Zion, an elderly prophet held the baby, and, tears streaming down his cheeks, he rejoiced that at last, Messiah son of David had been born: the long-awaited Savior was in his temple (Luke 2:22-32)!

This Savior would go up many hills and mountains in his ministry. On one, he'd sit and speak beatitudes. On another, he'd shine with light. But that ministry fed into his journey up the Fifth Mountain. We've seen Eden, seen Moriah, seen Sinai, seen Zion, but now the Fifth Mountain is Calvary. West of the Temple Mount, it's physically just a small hill, an outcropping of the extended Zion which overlooks the cemetery and garden that fill the old stone quarry. Physically, it's unremarkable, hardly a mountain at all. But spiritually, it's the greatest mountain around. For the Hand of the LORD has rested on Mount Calvary to trample down sin like straw in a dunghill (cf. Isaiah 25:10). There, the body of Jesus, a new and living temple, is lifted up on the cross. There, the LORD, reigning from the tree, decides the fate of strong nations far away, like us (cf. Micah 4:3). And as the LORD tastes death for us (cf. Isaiah 25:7-8; Hebrews 2:9), the mouth of the LORD of Hosts roars forth that it is finished (cf. Micah 4:4). And he offers us his “blood of the eternal covenant” (Hebrews 13:20) from his sacrifice on the mountain as God's Beloved Son. Only in this way could he open paradise again (Luke 23:43).

Yes, go to Mount Calvary, because what was done in it far exceeds anything ever done in the temple on Zion. Here on Calvary, the Beloved Son is at last sacrificed as even Isaac ultimately wasn't. Here on Calvary, the Law is fulfilled and signed and nailed to the cross. Here on Calvary, a better blood sealed a greater covenant. Here on Calvary, the true Son of David at last welcomes the plague onto himself to avert it from God's people, the sheep who follow him (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:17). Here on Calvary, we find the basis for all the worship we carry forward. On Mount Calvary, from the broken body of Christ, behold the spring of salvation gush forth, “a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High” (Psalm 46:4).

It might seem that, as we climb Calvary as our the Fifth Mountain, there's nowhere else to go. But there is. For Jesus does not stay dead. He rises from death. He ascends into heaven from the Mount of Olives. And then he settles his disciples in Jerusalem, on the western Mount Zion, to wait. There, in the upper room of a large house as they gather and pray on the Feast of Shavuot (or 'Pentecost') that remembers Sinai's gift of the Law, suddenly tongues of heavenly fire appear – hot as Eden's stones, bright as Abraham's torch on Moriah, more joyous than Sinai's blaze was fearful – and these divided fiery tongues burn the Law into the hearts of the apostolic outcasts from the world. For was it not written, “Out of Zion shall go forth the Law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem” (Micah 4:2), to “assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away” (Micah 4:6)? And so, rushing from the Upper Room to the Temple courts, they proclaim that the Spirit has been poured out as the prophets said, and that the crucified Jesus, the Messiah son of David, is the one who's ruling in heaven to do the pouring. Though geographically the apostles are preaching in the same place as the Second and Fourth Mountains, what God has done is new enough to call it a Sixth Mountain: the Mountain of the Pentecost.

And from that Mountain of the Pentecost, the renewed Zion, the disciples go forth with the Law – the Perfect Law of Love that's etched on their hearts – and they carry the gospel of the Word of the LORD from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And down through millennia, we've passed the torch, and we still pass it today as we call and gather the people of the earth. But where are we gathering to? Nowhere but the Last Mountain.

Before we approach, let's review. We first fell from Mount Eden, the mountain of paradise. We went up Mount Moriah, the mountain of sacrifice, with Abraham. Moses took us to Mount Sinai, the mountain of the Law – so that was the Third Mountain. Fourth, David appointed, and Solomon built, Zion as the holy mountain of God's dwelling, which recaptured something of Eden, Moriah, and Sinai all in one. But even that wasn't enough. We needed, fifth, Jesus' sacrifice on Zion's Calvary. And once he'd ascended, then, as a sixth part of our journey, we stood on Zion as the Mountain of the Pentecost to receive the Spirit and go forth to disciple the nations into the Law of Love, so we can gather them to the Seventh Mountain, the Last Mountain. And that Last Mountain is the Mountain of the LORD – the heavenly Mount Zion and New Eden. This mountain is a spiritual and heavenly reality, which we now approach in spirit but aim to enter bodily in the new creation.

It is this spiritual reality of which it's prophesied that “in the latter days..., the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of mountains..., and many nations shall come and say, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD...'” (Micah 4:1-2), “and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and forevermore” (Micah 4:7). It's here that “on this mountain, the LORD of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine..., and he will swallow up on this mountain... death forever” (Isaiah 25:6-8). It's this “great and high mountain” on which John, by the Holy Spirit, beholds “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:10). For “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Now that is a heavenly reality! Now that is a spiritual mountain! And that is how the author of Hebrews shows us what's really going on when we gather together to “offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe” (Hebrews 12:28). In spirit, we find the heavens open and ascend Mount Zion to celebrate the Lord's feast with angels and saints in the presence of our God and Savior. Every gathering of true worship, every Christian liturgy of the assembled people of God, is an ascent up the heavenly Zion, the Last Mountain – a foretaste of the hope now stored for us in heaven, to be revealed openly in the new creation. And our whole Christian life is the whole soul's climb up this Final Zion, diving upwards into the limitless life and light and love of the Lord. That is what it's all about, folks. That is what awaits us. And every time we are gathered in full worship, our spirits taste and see what's at the top, for we mingle with mighty angels and hold holiness in our hands. In the rest of life, we just aim to get entirely there, to that top of that Last Mountain – where we'll find also the First Mountain again, a paradise with God forever, in “a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28).

Friends, this is the last sermon in our series on the Ten Commandments. Those commandments were summed up in spirit in the one and only commandment given on the Mountain of Eden. Their proper ordering was established on Mount Moriah. Then the Ten Commandments were themselves the foundation of the Law given at Mount Sinai. Those Ten Commandments were likewise the heart of the temple on Mount Zion. It was our unfaithfulness to those commandments that required a new Moriah, the sacrifice of God's Beloved Son; and so he fulfilled the commandments by carrying wood up Mount Calvary to die for our sins in exile from the camp. Rising from the dead, the Beloved Son carried his sacrificial blood of the covenant into heaven to his Father the “Consuming Fire” (Hebrews 12:29), and in turn he poured out his flaming Spirit onto Zion to burn the Perfect Law of Love into our hearts, so that the Ten Commandments, in letter and in spirit, might never be far from us.

And so, as we're brought to the foot of Heavenly Zion by baptism, and as we spiritually ascend in our worship, we recommit ourselves each step of the way to living this Perfect Law of Love as we make our journey up the Last Mountain. For this is why God's commandments were given. From the first, it was to help us safely find and approach the Last Mountain. And they were given to help us climb, to press rightly and strongly on the upward way, for none but those of obedient hands and heart can “ascend the hill of the LORD (Psalm 24:3-4). So “see that you do not refuse him who is speaking..., him who warns from heaven” (Hebrews 12:25)!

But not only do they help us find and approach the Last Mountain, they show us life on its summit. For “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my Holy Mountain,” says the Most High (Isaiah 11:9). In fancier terms, the Ten Commandments are eschatological – they look to the last things, the end, the goal – and that's part of what Advent is for, reflecting on the last things. By grasping their spirit through faith and hope and love on the journey, we're preparing ourselves to dance atop the mountain with angels and saints, much as the climb up that cliff prepared me to walk with the monks of Simonopetra. We are preparing to be forever with Christ as his Living Temple, and so to become nothing but love as God is Love – to be forever blazing with his flame and yet unconsumed. For the Ten Commandments are written in just such fire. And they are steps to that longed-for dance. May the rhythm we've been learning in the Ten Commandments these last seven months serve us well as we continue our climb – and serve us well when we reach the mountaintop, there to become a New Jerusalem!

1  See 1 Enoch 24:3-4; 25:3; Gregory K. Beale, The Temple and the Church's Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (InterVarsity Press, 2004), 146-147 (“Eden was a garden on a mountain”); Hector M. Patmore, Adam, Satan, and the King of Tyre: The Interpretation of Ezekiel 28:11-19 in Late Antiquity (Brill, 2012), 212-213.

2  See Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (Yale University Press, 1993), 174, 186; Matthew D. Levering, Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offering and Christian Eucharist (Blackwell, 2005), 29, 33-35; Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises (Yale University Press, 2009), 117-118.

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